A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Last words

It’s Baroque week at Dartington. As I type, there are three guys in jeans and t-shirts playing natural trumpets and horns on the ramparts. As you do. Elsewhere, recorder music billows out of every other room, with the spiky twang of harpsichords clattering away in the background.

I’m more at home with 440 hz, so this week I’m spending time playing my other instrument, the imagination. James Runcie, writer, director, curator of ideas, is giving a course in crime-writing and I’m on it. Every morning we meet at the Playhouse, a ludicrously cute cottage in the gardens with a thatched roof and leadlight windows and talk about MURDER; who, where, how and, most importantly, why.

 

Last night, James Runcie talked death in a different way, in a meditation on last words, the end of life, and what we leave behind. Poet John Keats, philosopher David Hume and writer Virginia Woolf knew all too clearly that they were about to die. For Keats and Hume, they were aware of the illnesses taking over their body. For Woolf, it was the illness taking over her mind.

Runcie read their letters to loved ones and, in the case of Hume, part of a succinct but profound life summary, written over the course of a few hours in the days before his death. It goes without saying that they were intense and moving.

In addition to these trenchant words, we also had music (from Joanna McGregor at the piano), playing works written contemporaneously with the words; Haydn for Hume, Beethoven for Keats and, for Woolf, Regard de la Vierge from Vingt regards sur L’Enfant Jesus by Olivier Messiaen. Again, it goes without saying that the music was moving: in particular, MacGregor drew a radiant sound from the piano in the Messiaen, like big blobs of pure colour dropping into a pool of water. But more important, the music served an important purpose by giving the words we had just heard space; space for contemplation, space for resonance.

I’m still thinking.


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Musique Cordiale #4: Siegfried and the Wolf

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All set up, ready to play in L’Eglise San Leger, a Romanesque Church from the 11th century. This will be my last concert in France as tomorrow I head north to Dartington. It’s been a mighty week. Old friends and new colleagues and ridiculously beautiful medieval villages and all the rose you can drink. Wish me luck holding my own in the Siegfried Idyll and Peter and the Wolf. It’s been a privilege to play in the Musique Cordiale Orchestra. I’ve enjoyed every minute, and I’m immensely grateful to the inspiring director, Pippa Pawlik and her dynamic team of assistants, volunteers, musicians, donors, singers, players, actors, chefs, drivers, stand-luggers and water-bottler hander outerers. Gros Bisous.

Now, as a mistral blows into town sweeping away the Saharan Desert air, they’ll be rehearsing for a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers later in the week. Making music, making friends. Vive la musique entente cordiale.

 

 


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Musique Cordiale diary #2: Amor interruptus

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Come inside. It’s much cooler in here. The Église Saint-Étienne at Bargemon

After twelve hours of rehearsal, two concert programs learnt, one performance done and many glasses of Provencal rose drunk, I’m beginning to acclimatise to the heat and pace. It helps when you spend the middle of the day within the thick stone walls of 12th century Chapelle Notre-Dame de l’Ormeau just outside Seillans, listening to Schumann.  Young German tenor Michael Mogl‘s recital included songs by Mozart, Wolf, R Strauss alongside Schumann’s Dichterliebe, with accompanist Rebecca Taylor extracting wonderful sounds from a clavinova. The generous resonance of the chapel muddied the mercurial texture of the Mozart and Wolf songs, but did not hide the handsome bloom of Mogl’s voice, with its clear, unforced top and sensuous mid-range. He became more consistent, more agile, as the recital went on, diving into the emotional maelstrom of Dichterliebe, the audience hanging on every note until disaster struck. PFFT. The lights flickered. The power went out. And with no electricity for the keyboard, the music stopped.

 
Meanwhile, back in the air-conditioned comfort of Seillans’ Salle Polyvalente, rehearsals for two orchestral concerts continued. Musique Cordiale’s Academy Strings, a group of young students who spend a week playing together and alongside professionals, joined the orchestra to play Schubert and Prokofiev. Schubert’s tricky: initially more straightforward than Prokofiev but, as conductor James Lowe explained, demanding an exquisite attention to detail in terms of attack, articulation and tempo. Not PFATT. More phwoom. Peem. Whooofve… And don’t get sidetracked by articulation into slowing down. So much to think about, but the students came out grinning.

IMG_0765The other program was an all-French affaire, with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Berlioz’s Nuit d’ete, with the radiant Isabel Pfefferkorn, and Ravel’s weird and spiky Tzigane, with soloist Jonathan Martindale. Martindale gave a searing performance, bouncing the terrifying opening cadenza off the thick stone walls of the church and tearing through the dance with fiery energy.

You’d think he’d earned his cold beer with that, but no. He returned to the stage to lead the orchestra in the Mother Goose Suite, and nearly made me cry with the delicate beauty of the solo in the final movement. Good gig.


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Life, the universe and everything

The troops were gathered, the weapons tuned. The general stood, ready for action, in front of the battalions. The flag went up then BOOM. Battle commenced.

david-robertson-gallery-preview-1200x650Mahler’s third Symphony is an epic battle between life and death, hope and despair, from a man who knew all these things intimately. That he could make such a fervent case for life and hope considering his life, so brutally pock-marked with tragedy, is amazing. That he could make this enormous, unwieldy, nutty chunk of musical philosophy a gripping journey of constantly unfolding wonders is nigh on miraculous.

The challenge for the combined forces of Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the women of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, and Sydney Children’s Choir was to navigate their way through this epic work with pace and coherence, and they did. Even at the moments of chaos, through the dull, forbidding roar of low timpani, past the gibbering winds, there was an enduring sense of direction, a reaching out towards the ultimate triumph of light over dark. It took a while to get there, and things got scary at times, but there were never any thoughts of turning back. Not with artistic director and chief conductor, David Robertson, leading the charge, and Andrew Haveron, concertmaster, as valiant knight.

This really was a you-have-to-be-there performance: three pairs of cymbals clashing together is just a racket on the radio, but on stage you see six great golden plates doing their synchronised swing. Likewise, the bells-up clarinet doesn’t just sound louder; it looks loud, it looks rude and threatening, like a gun aimed squarely at you, yes, you. And seeing the serried ranks of the Sydney Children’s Choir, heads nodding as they counted their bars rest, breathing as one before firing off volleys of ‘bim, bam!’ bells was compelling.

Much to see. Much to hear. Much to understand. Whether or not one grasped Mahler’s vastness of vision, it was nicely enacted through the arrangement of the orchestra: first and second violins were arranged antiphonally, and further divided into front and back desks, so that they seemed to be isolated voices calling to each other across the expanse of the stage; the basses and cellos were on stage right, the bass drum centre back, and the  tuba and bass trombones stage left, their rusty growls surrounding the orchestra; and off in the distance was patient, loving humanity, in the guise of the women of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.

And then there was Susan Graham. Graham was last in Sydney two years ago, singing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Now she’s here for two weeks with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, appearing in Ravel’s Sheherezade and this, Mahler’s Third. Her “O Mensch, gib Acht!” was like a revelation, focussed but never hard, brave but questioning, the still centre of the symphony.

If Graham was the still centre, Robertson was the lightning conductor, catalysing and directing the roiling, explosive energy contained in the huge array of instruments before him. It’s a massive symphony but, under his direction, it never felt chaotic: in those exquisite moments of other-worldly violins and glittery harp-pings the world suddenly, for a few fragile moments, made sense; then, in the final movement the eight horns roared, the trumpets blazed, and the final movement played out in all its majestic, radiant, wait-for-it wait-for-it, just-a-bit-more, yes, glory. Yes.

Yes.

You can catch another performance (and if you can, you should) this Friday, Saturday and Monday. It will also be broadcast on Saturday 29 July at noon on ABC Classic FM, (but you’ll have to imagine the cymbals). 

 

 


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Angels and Demons

ebb94e9213bbd23d4b2e0811a7099945The relative speed of light and sound has always fascinated me. The way that, on the cricket pitch, you see the batsman swing and follow through a good second before you hear the tock of willow on leather. Or, in the concert hall, how the conductor’s baton goes down and nothing happens for a split second, then this great noise wells out from the stage, even as the stick is rebounding for the next note. That gap between sight and sound is tantalising: eyes open, the orchestra looks like it’s not playing on the conductor’s beat, but eyes closed, it sounds tight as a drum. When you also consider that the wind, brass and percussion are themselves factoring in the sound lag, playing micro-seconds ahead of the beat, which is microseconds ahead of the strings, to achieve the desired ensemble, the complexity of relationships between players, conductor and audience becomes quite mind-blowing. As the Doctor would say,   it’s “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey … stuff.”.

There was plenty of timey wimey stuff on Friday night. American conductor James Gaffigan did his thing, the orchestra did theirs and, as if by magic — but actually by a whole heap of skill and little bit of physics — it all came together. The lilt and swagger of the Kodaly’s Hungarian csardas, the wistful lingerings of Rachmaninov’s waltz, the unforgiving perpetual motion of the finale… The Sydney Symphony were on fine form, soloists from within the ranks shining through exhilarating tuttis.

26753-275-prom_21_bach_alina_ibragimova_chris_christodoulou_resizedBartok’s Violin Concerto No.2 dances to a different kind of time, simultaneously strange but familiar. Soloist Alina Ibragimova brought a punchy, physical toughness to the unrelenting virtuosity of the first movement, riding the orchestral tuttis like an extreme surfer. All that changed, however, in the second movement, where the solo line floated, as if without effort, across the crystal sheen of high strings and harp. The finale was fraught, taut, terrifying. Brilliant.

Many thanks to the Sydney Symphony for inviting me to this concert, and I hope to hear Ibragimova again, soon. In the meantime, the orchestra welcomes back its chief conductor and artistic director, David Robertson, next week for the Big One – Mahler 3. If they play like they played on Friday, it’ll be fab.

If you enjoy my writing, please check out my book project, Sanctuary, crowd-funding now at Unbound. You can buy advance copies and pledge for a range of rewards including coming to a concert with me, music criticism workshops, or the opportunity to work with me on telling your story in music and words

 

 


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Paris, 1780s

ahe-subscriptionsThe Australian Haydn Ensemble have pulled off quite a coup in securing legendary forte pianist Melvyn Tan as soloist for their latest gig. Back in the 80s — the 1980s — Tan was at the frontier of the new territories for the keyboard, working with Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardner to refashion great swathes of the classical repertoire. That was then, and he’s moved on (as he explains in his appearance on The Music Show, well worth a listen). Nevertheless, he returns to Mozart with the same fleet, fresh touch that thrilled all those years ago.

Tan plays on a fortepiano made by Chris Maene in 2014, modelled on a Walter & Sohn instrument, prepared by Colin Van Der Lecq and loaned to the AHE by Ivan Foo. It’s a gorgeous looking instrument with a beguiling sound, but it takes a while to tune into its limited dynamic range; during the opening tuttis, Tan could be air-playing. The instrument’s sonic delicacy raises the stakes in terms of phrasing and articulation: the music is no longer defined by contrasting attack and heft, but by the speed of decay and the unweighting of notes, giving the fortepiano space to sound. When they get it right, it’s  like champagne. Not cheap fizz, mind, but serious, vintage champagne, with a lingering complexity amongst the pinpricks of effervescence. It’s an impressive and very enjoyable skip back in time.

Framing the concerto are two works, Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 in B-flat major ‘La Reine’ and, to start, a mini-symphony from one Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de St Georges. Bologne is an intriguing figure, the illegitimate son of a Guadeloupe plantation owner who, in spite of his skin colour, became a society figure in 18th century Paris. He was, apparently, a famous swordsman and a celebrated musician and composer. His Symphony Op. 11, No. 2 in D major, which doubles as overture to one of his many operas, L’Amant Anonyme, is perhaps not quite as interesting as the man, but a fun and nicely-done beginning.

marie_antoinette_adultBologne also made his mark as a patron, commissioning a suite of symphonies from one Joseph Haydn in 1785. Whether inspired by the generous commission, the substantial forces of the Loge Olympique Orchestra, or the glamour of Paris, Haydn’s resulting set of works were real crackers, with No. 85 supposedly a favourite of Queen Marie Antoinette. And with a performance like the AHE gave it, it’s not hard to hear why. Artistic director Skye McIntosh’s choice of tempi were bold and convincing, showing off a nimble, finely-tuned string section and spectacular virtuoso playing in the horns.

The Australian Haydn Orchestra have come a long way since their first season in 2012. McIntosh has assembled a fine band of period string players and the wind section — often a weak spot in historically-informed performance —  made all the right noises. They’ve fixed their intonation across the board and found a more consistent tone; their vision and style is beginning to shine through. More, please!

 

 


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Favourite Things

Musica Viva Australia has just launched Sessionsa series of brief, one-off gigs in unusual places. The first featured violone and bass player Kirsty McCahon and percussionist Kerryn Joyce, performing in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens of NSW.

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Plants and music. Two of my favourite things. And with a glass of wine thrown in (or, in my case, thrown over – apologies to the various people I splattered) what’s not to like? While not everything worked  — there’s more than one reason why the Herbarium is a herbarium and not a regular concert venue — it was an auspicious beginning.

Challenging the traditional concert format also seems to be a favourite strategy for the mainstream music presenters. Early starts, late nights, short concerts, marathons, lights, cameras… We’ve seen music and image in the ACO’s thrilling Mountainthe SSO’s matey Playlist and Branden-backflippery, all in the name of art and audience development. And there’s ongoing play with interesting venues, ranging from Government House to Kings Cross carpark.

Sessions is a bit more artist focussed. Notwithstanding the intriguing venue and generous refreshments the real hook, for me, was hearing two musicians playing their favourites, and especially works which don’t get out much. Luciano Berio’s Psy (Forte barocco), a solo for double bass featuring ear-bending quarter tones, is unlikely to appear on a Classic 100 compilation, but it’s a work which seems deeply embedded in McCahon’s psyche. She plays it like she means it. She means it very well.

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Likewise Dedication by Ian Cleworth (who is the artistic director of Taikoz and has introduced a generation of Australians to the wonders of Japanese drumming), specially arranged for this solo performance. Joyce’s electrifying performance clearly demonstrated how much it means it to her. Her own composition, Recollection, was a great opener, introducing us to the bass violine’s range of timbres, and Robert Davison’s Melody for Julia was a winning display of good humour and collegial virtuosity. The artists’ introductions and lively repartee only increased the sense of being witness to something a little bit special. Not all the repertoire hit the mark, but with such dedicated performers    it was impossible not to get drawn in.

Other aspects of the new format might be fine-tuned: you don’t really need an interval when the program only lasts 60 minutes. You probably don’t even need another free drink, especially when access to the improvised bar is difficult. And while it’s great to be up close and personal, some instruments work better than others in an intimate setting, especially when they are either very loud or very soft. Finally, there’s the age-old problem of how to get people to leave the party when they’re having a good time. We were invited to stroll on out through moonlit gardens, which was persuasive, but not enough to make us want to cut short those fabulous post-concert conversations which are the icing on the cake of a good show.

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After the performance McCahon mused a little on the role of the double bass, so often pushed to the side or the back of the hall. She’s determined to reclaim centre stage, and to introduce audiences to the deliciously complex range of sounds this awkward instrument has. This was a near ideal format for the start of her campaign.

Musica Viva has not announced the next Sessions but watch out, because rumour has it the next one is being planned for early August.